CANONSBURG – On Friday morning at Sarris Candies, the chocolate rabbits were coming off production lines, pausing for an employee to affix a pastel ribbon or to carefully trim off a tiny edge of chocolate left by the mould.
Just a year ago, Feb. 3, 2012, about one-third of the production areas where Sarris employees cast and carefully put the final detailed touches on confections were destroyed by an early morning fire.
In the aftermath of the blaze, which also temporarily shut down the company’s retail areas at its Adams Avenue site, company President Bill Sarris noted Sarris was able to save all of the Easter inventory it had produced because it was stored off-site in its distribution center.
Sarris said Friday that despite the fact the company lost many of its Easter moulds in the blaze, this year’s Easter candy run is in full production.
“We got through last Easter with a limited amount of items available due to the fire,” Chief Executive Officer Athena Sarris said in a statement.
“We lost a lot of chocolate moulds and weren’t able to provide the selection we’ve had in years past. But this season, we’ll have a huge selection of new bunnies and novelties to fill everyone’s baskets.”
Bill Sarris added the company also had full production for its Christmas and Valentine’s Day runs.
He said he learned a valuable business lesson from the fire – one that depends on more than one basket.
“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” Sarris said, explaining that around the time of the fire, he and other managers had been seriously considering looking for land to bring all of their operations under one roof.
In addition to its Adams Avenue site where 200 people work, it has a 150-person warehouse and distribution center about 100 yards away on Cavasina Drive. It also owns Tyrone-based Gardner Candies, where another 200 people work.
The fire put an end to consolidation plans when Sarris realized his company was able to ship its Easter products unfettered by the damaged production areas.
“We’re staying right here,” he said, acknowledging that for Sarris Candies, having operations that are a little decentralized turned out to be a very good thing.
As the fire was burning, he said, he could see delivery trucks picking up products at the distribution center.
In addition to being able to distribute its Easter candy inventory, Sarris said the company never had to cancel any of its orders from fundraising groups, another mainstay of its business.
While it took a couple of months for the company to recover from the fire damage – it had to completely restore its ice cream parlor and rebuild two floors of production – it managed to keep employees working.
Retail operations manager Norm Candelore noted that about 2,000 man-hours were spent rebuilding the massive, 2,600-pound “Chocolate Castle,” an intricately designed centerpiece of the ice cream parlor.
Sarris said he also paid attention to what customers wanted in the aftermath of the fire.
While he and Candelore saw the destruction of the ice cream parlor as an opportunity to bring a new design to the area, longtime customers told them otherwise.
“There were a lot of memories,” Sarris said. “They said, ‘We want the piano back; we want the castle back.’ They wanted it the way it was.
“Our name might be on the building, but we found out it’s our customers’ place.”
The 53-year-old business was founded by Sarris’ father, the late Frank Sarris, and his wife, Athena.
Over the years, the company continued to expand its market area, eventually distributing in the tri-state area. Candelore said Friday the company now distributes to Giant Eagle, Shop ’n Save and Hallmark card stores, as well as area Bed Bath & Beyond, CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens stores.
Plant manager Dennis Sroka said Friday the company continues to work with insurers on the final details of putting the plant back together.
But as with many fires that do heavy damage, there are some things that may never be replaced.
“It’s almost like it never happened, until you look back,” Sarris said, noting that some antique metal rabbit moulds that were destroyed are probably irreplaceable.
“Some of the moulds were 50 years old when my father bought them for $6. Right now, you can’t buy them for $5,000.”
Some new production equipment has been purchased, but Candelore noted the type of candy-making that Sarris does requires lots of people who attend to minute details like carefully decorating each piece and artfully packaging the final product.
For those details, the company depends upon its employees, many of whom have decades of experience in candy-making operations.
“Sure, we have a lot of equipment, but we’re still doing things by hand,” he said.